Black Ships & Samurai

Although those involved might not always like to admit it, history is largely a matter of perspective. In some cases those perspectives are simple differences of opinion, in others they are much more serious matters, and occasionally, the added factor of an encounter between alien cultures can make things especially interesting. In the mid-19th century, such an encounter took place between an expansionist America and an isolationist Japan. Black Ships & Samurai offers a fascinating comparison of two histories of the same event.

Launched last year, Black Ships & Samurai is part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "Visualizing Cultures" course, and is made available online through the Institute's OpenCourseWare Initiative. For those not familiar with the Initiative, it is an effort by MIT to place all its course materials - from class syllabuses to lecture videos - online, where they can be freely accessed by anyone with an internet connection. Virtual students may not get university credit for using the materials, but those who wish to learn for the sake of learning - or those who may want to prepare for upcoming courses in the real world - can find content from 500 courses in 33 academic disciplines at all five of MIT's schools. (A similar, albeit less extensive resource is available for the musically inclined at the Berklee College of Music's, Berklee Shares website.)

Black Ships & Samurai examines both the Japanese and American viewpoints of the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and his return in 1854 (when the American concept of Free Trade could be summarized as, "open your borders to trade...or else"). A pair of images on the home page give an early introduction to the disparate feelings the two sides must have had about the mission, as well as their distinctive methods of recording the events. On the American side is an oil painting of the majestic ships under majestic skies heeled over majestically in rough seas as they make their heroic journey west. On the Japanese side, a woodcut depicts a pitch black ship with a demonic figurehead and enormous eyes on its stern firing canon and belching smoke.

The site's content is divided into three sections, beginning with the Core Exhibit. This six-part survey of the two sides' representations of the visits begins with Perry himself. Western photographs and lithographs of the man are compared to eastern woodblock prints (one of which depicts the Commodore as a "tengu," or goblin). Depictions of the ships are next (this was the first time that the Japanese had seen steam-powered paddle-wheelers), followed by parallel illustrated accounts of early encounters, split into "Facing East" and "Facing West." The Core Exhibit ends with a look at Japanese portraits of the Americans, the exchange of culture-specific gifts between the two nations, and a bit of 19th century natural history.

The second section,Visual Narratives, presents a handful of scroll-styled interpretations of the content in the Core Exhibit. (This introduces visitors to the Japanese manner of storytelling at the time - a method which, ironically, is familiar in website navigation 150 years later.) The Interactive Black Ship Scroll takes one of the original 30-foot-long 1854 documents and transforms it into an automatically scrolling Shockwave file, while a QuickTime interactive version of the same scroll allows visitors to highlight and take a quick tour of individual panels. A Travelling Exhibition page lists the show's physical locations during 2004.

Among all this imagery, Black Ships provides extensive text - not only comparing the differing historical, cultural and emotional perspectives on various events, but also the stylistic decisions made by the artists. It's unfortunate that more of the images aren't linked to full-screen versions, but many do 'enlarge,' and the available images are sufficient to support the narrative.

There are at least two sides to any story. Black Ships effectively demonstrates the two-sides principle in a specific case. With luck, it will encourage us to look for multiple viewpoints on future occasions.

Black Ships & Samurai can be found at

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